Wednesday, November 7, 2012

#20. Do Brown County

Fall is heralded by a number of indicators: pumpkin turn up everywhere, hot apple cider becomes a common Starbucks order, and musings on Halloween costumes pepper conversation. In Indiana, one of the true indicators is a weekend pilgrimage to Brown County.

Brown County, located in south-central Indiana, is renowned for its artists' studios and natural beauty. T.C. Steele, an American Impressionist painter in the late 1800s and early 1900s, is credited with establishing the County as an artists' colony, according to the Brown County Tourism website. Since then its beauty has continued to attract artists and visitors.

Brown County landscape by T.C. Steele
Although it is stunning in any season, Brown County really shines when the foliage turns from green to vibrant reds, oranges and yellows. Thousands of trees covering the hills and valleys of the County make it a truly stunning place to visit.

Brown County foliage
Most visitors to Brown County limit their time to Nashville, a town filled with quaint knick knacks and fudge shops, and Brown County State Park. While both are worth visiting, I had already done both of those things. I wanted to see a new side of Brown County.

Nashville shops
Inspiration came from an "Indianapolis Monthly" article (surprise) by Nancy Comiskey, a professor the IU School of Journalism. It detailed directions to the Stonehenge of Indiana, something I had not heard of. I knew this was definitely going to be a new side of Brown County for me.

Before I describe the Stonehenge of Indiana, I must describe the memorable journey. Driving through Brown County is a transportive experience in itself. The winding roads reveal yield to picturesque vistas at nearly every turn. Add a great playlist and the drive alone is worth the trip.

The first stop on the trip to Stonehenge was Stone Head. It is a carving from 1851 that points east to Colombus and west to Fairfax, a town that was flooded to make way for Lake Monroe. Comiskey describes it as an "unfortunate cross between a mime and Shemp of the Three Stooges." I would say that is a fair description.

From here we drove through the "prettiest valley in Brown County," passing its small farms and more fantastic foliage.

Sights from Highway 135 South
Next stop was the Story Inn, a restaurant and inn situated in a tiny village founded in 1851. The restaurant is out of the way, but undoubtedly merits the drive. Housed in a former turn-of-the-century general store, the gourmet restaurant serves delicious Hoosier favorites made with local ingredients.

The "Indianapolis Monthly" theme continues
The Story Inn
I ordered a tenderloin. It was huge, delicious and served with hand-cut french fries and slightly sweet cole slaw. Mason jars served as drinking glasses.

A musician played on the back porch, antique tools lined the walls and wine bottles filled with Christmas lights cast a soft glow from overhead, creating a peaceful and anachronistic atmosphere distinctively different from the typical Cracker Barrel-country kitsch.

Next door, the horse riding trail from Brown County State Park ends.

The Story Inn makes up the entirety of the village. Its isolation lends itself to beautiful nature scenes.

With a satiated appetite, the journey continued on several miles of gravel road. One last stop was left before the ascent to the Hoosier Stonehenge: a memorial to the people of Elkinsville. These people "had to leave their homes in the early 1960s when Salt Creek was dammed to create Lake Monroe," according to the article by Comiskey.

The memorial inscription reads the town was "Bathed in the shadow of Browning Mountain, a wonder in itself."

Elkinsville memorial
Homage paid, the ascent up the 928-foot Browning "Mountain" finally began. Although the path wasn't especially well-marked, the directions laid out in the "Indianapolis Monthly" article were easy to follow. It is a really off-the-beaten-path trail in the Hoosier National Forest, but so enchanting.

After about a half hour of hiking, the circle of sandstone slabs making "Indiana's Stonehenge" finally appeared.

Countless slabs scatter the hillside. Explanations for the stones include: "a foundation for an early settler's cabin; a Native American ceremonial site; an ancient temple; the handiwork of extraterrestrials," according to the Indy Monthly article. The most likely explanation is that the slabs were "quarried by an early settler and left behind when the builders found a more-accessible source for the stone."

Regardless of the source, it is a tranquil spot conducive to quiet reflection. This spot is a far cry from the streets of Nashville crowded with Ye Olde Fudge Shoppes and seasonal tourists.

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